Analysis | From Playground to Parade Ground: The case against Military Schools

Moves aimed at increasing the Military's presence in the UK education system are based on more than just misguided assumptions about military ethics, argues Alex Baker, in an examination of the renewed calls for military academies.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, September 1, 2012 0:00 - 1 Comment

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 Military Academies: producing individuals who conform (Photo: Paul Grover)

The recent proposal by the  Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Stephen Twigg, that military-run schools would form part of Labour Party policy has dramatically increased the possibility of military academies in the UK.

This policy, drawn from a paper by the ‘Big Society’ think tank ResPublica and given a ringing endorsement by its co-author, Tory policy éminence grise Phillip Blond, is yet another indicator of the size of the political gap in Westminster and its paradoxically infinite closure, as well as the increasing militarisation of everyday life. However it also speaks more broadly to some of the most imminent crises faced not just in the economic sphere, but by the government itself.

What I hope to do here is to first take the proposal on its own merits. As we shall see, assuming the face-value intentions of the Military Academies program reveals a whole set of problems with the research and assumptions it is based on. In the second half of this piece, I will pick apart these underlying assumptions to show how they reflect an attempt to respond to threats to certain political and economic interests.

Lets be clear on this; the aims of Military Academies, and military participation in schools, when taken on their own terms, are grounded in shoddy thinking. The ResPublica paper states very clearly that:

“This proposal would put in place binding institutions that reconnect place, vocation and relationship, instilling foundational values at the base of our society, so that all may share and participate in the opportunities, hope and aspiration that will result. It offers an effective way to tackle apathy and revive civil ethos amongst those who have become so badly disaffected.”

The assumption, quite clearly, is that the military is not only a crude disciplinary agent but is also capable of instilling social and moral values towards the education of the ‘whole person’. In support of this particular, moral claim, the ResPublica proposal cites a minimum of academic research, though it does later cite two studies of the U.S – one of which focuses on the social mobility of servicemen in the 1940-1965 period, which had radically different economic and social conditions from today, the other a more extensive study over the cold war period and the early 90s – as well as a speech by a military official.

This paucity of research should perhaps be unsurprising for a paper claiming expertise on education authored by a theologian (Blond) and someone with a PhD in aesthetics. If there was any further doubt as to the suspect nature of the paper, the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts have recently criticised ResPublica for shoddy practice and poor research methods.

Perhaps this should be unsurprising in the world of think tanks, where all too often policy based on assumption and prejudice is laundered to give it an air of academic legitimacy. However, when we find politicians like Twigg parroting such reports; especially the claim that “The armed forces can make important contributions to the nation not just on the battlefield but by embedding standards and values they embody within our social fabric”, there is cause for alarm. The assumption that the military can embed moral values that have a positive social impact is just that; an assumption, but an ideological one, which will be more seriously addressed in a moment.

The second, more substantive claim made, is that the military can have a role in improving ‘social mobility’ for young people who would be otherwise NEET. Here’s where those case studies come in. The problem is that they bear comparatively little relevance to the prospect of Military academies in the UK in the 2010s. A far more relevant experiment, done in the US, is the ‘boot camp’ model aimed at young offenders. Twigg has implicitly tried to distance his call for greater military involvement from comparisons to this program, probably  because it was considered a shocking failure. The US Department of Justice’s own report summarises:

“Although it’s clear that many boot camp participants improve their education levels and “pro social values,” these levels of improvement are not sufficient to overcome the more powerful social and economic forces that facilitated their involvement in criminal activities. And it does not appear that promise of  “aftercare services”adds much to the lack of treatment effects.”

Twigg claims that, unlike ‘boot camps’, Labour’s project would involve the teaching of moral and social values and improve ‘social mobility’. The problem is that this was precisely the assumption the boot camp system itself made:

“The earliest boot camps, sometimes referred to as “First Generation” camps, tended to have a heavy emphasis on military-based program activities but provided little in terms of treatment or aftercare programming. “Second Generation” boot camps followed the lead of some of the earlier treatment-oriented programs (e.g., New York’s Shock Incarceration Program, see Clark, Aziz, and MacKenzie, 1994). They toned down the military emphasis and began to increase substance abuse, educational, and cognitive programming. Importantly, attempts were made to provide boot camp graduates with greater levels of post-release supervision and services (Castellano and Plant,  1996).”

Of course, boot camps aren’t the only disciplinary institutions to focus on more than just the hard-disciplinary aspects of education. Historically, disciplinary techniques have had close ties to, and often a continuum with, educational and social programs, emphasising the alteration they intended on the ‘soul’- the body and the entire moral and social subjectivity of the human being.

Twigg’s assertion- that Labour proposals differ from the crude populism of “a spell in the army would do the world of good” blimpery- doesn’t hold up; they both rest on the same fundamental assumption about the properties of a certain kind of disciplinary order. Moreover, one of the few examples Twigg gives- the Duke of York’s School in Dover- is very different from what is being proposed.

The Duke of York’s school is an academy that has many of the trappings of the public school system, including boarding, old boys’ networks and other regalia, and admits children from forces’ families and those of overseas crown servants, alongside those in local authority care. As with  Labour’s obsession with faith schools when it was in power, a selective set of institutions where factors other than the school itself have a significant impact on exam results are being mistaken for successful agents of social mobility- a term used here as a smokescreen for the problem of class itself.

Military academies, and military involvement in schools, lack a grounding in research and public scrutiny, and remain largely untested in the UK on the scale being proposed. Where similar schemes have been tried elsewhere they have been found lacking. And at the end of the day, the basic causes of social inequality remain, despite the moralistic concerns of the authors of such a scheme. With youth unemployment hovering above 20%, at very best military academies and participation in schooling will be a sticking plaster on a chronic lack of jobs for young people.

My personal suspicion is that those proposing this scheme are fully aware of these failings. So, why is it getting interest in the legislative arena?

Lunchtime at the Duke of York’s Royal Military School, “an academy that has many of the trappings of the public school system, including boarding, old boys’ networks and other regalia”

Securitising Society through Education

To answer that question, we first have to appreciate that military presence in schools is part of a broader creeping militarisation of everyday life in the UK and the global north. The military personnel on patrol with the police, and the ‘public order battalion’ on standby for the Olympics, are the tip of an iceberg that has origins that run deeper than just paranoia about terrorism or public security.

A proliferation of private companies like Serco, G4S and others push forward this tendency as well as piggybacking on it. A number of factors drive this process, including increased pressure on resources such as arable land, soil, water and petroleum, alongside an increasing urbanisation of  rapidly growing populations.

As a banker recently admitted to BBC correspondent Paul Mason, ‘defensible land‘ is now highly desirable amongst political and economic elites. Thus the monitoring and control of mobile, displaced and surplus populations through a whole set of political, legal and technological matrices is necessitated in order to manage the human fallout from the economic (mis-)management of these problems; things like immigration detention centres being just one example among many.

What has shocked even the most hard nosed of the British political class after the economic crash of 2008, and the subsequent recession, is the rate at which these problems have exceeded their own containment. Examining the ResPublica report is revealing- a substantial amount of text is devoted to the cause of the 2011 riots, with the vast majority of statistical studies referenced relating to ’causes’ such as “The rioters were poor, ‘ethically-skewed’ and under-educated”, we are told.

There is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a correlation between the origin of participants in the riots and deprived areas. However, a clarifying footnote citing department of justice statistics goes on to show what is being implied by ‘ethically skewed’: previous contact with the judicial system (80% of participants) and perhaps, more perniciously, those with special educational needs (66%).

The definition of ‘ethics’ at play in the report is in reality simply the extent to which one identifies with the normative parameters of the law, the state, and the classroom. Here’s where talk of ‘moral health’ really comes into its own.

The dangers of comparing a non-normative ethics to ‘moral sickness’ are well known; the oppression of sexualities, religions and political ideas has often been justified under such a rubric. However, the ‘health’ of the body politic is, more importantly, a foundational concept of the modern form of the nation-state; as Mark Neocleous, Professor of the Critique of Political Economy at Brunel University, observed in his research on policing; the concept of cleanliness has a connection with notions of  propriety, policing, and, crucially, property, as part of the order of ‘social security’ in a broad sense.

The concept of ‘moral health’, has less to do with education in critical thought about questions of ethics, and more to do with the entry of a certain kind of policing into the classroom, and the monitoring of potentially dangerous social classes: both Twigg and the ResPublica report emphasise the role Military academies would have in the most deprived schools and areas, especially those that were the ‘source’ of rioters. The linguistic slippage of ‘moral health’, social mobility and “aspiration” is no accident; the proposal on offer is premised on the assumption that these are one and the same.

There is another side to the story here; the role of the teachers and the ‘restructuring’ of education. Cuts to the Military will see 20,000 posts abolished, with many soldiers forced to take compulsory redundancy as a result. At the same time,  austerity-driven changes to teaching budgets and pension schemes are all criticised by teachers’ unions, which have already gone on strike over such issues.

Military personnel are forbidden from forming trade unions to represent themselves, and have historically been used as strike breakers – as was the case in the 2002-2003 fire brigade strikes. As such, military-run schools, and ex-military staff in public sector teaching, have the convenient function of both hiding a potentially embarrassing ex-services employment crisis, and mitigating the possibility of strikes in the public sector.

There is also the wider context of the reckless overhaul of the education sector, the past week alone has seen an increase in attacks on education provision for low income students. The controversy around alterations to GCSE marking has led some teachers, governors and parents to accuse Michael Gove of interfering with the figures for political and commercial purposes, which disadvantage the pupils from lower-income areas.

At the time of writing a legal challenge to Gove’s decision is in the offing. Leaked emails about London Metropolitan University, successor to a string of institutions focused on working class higher education, and one of the most affordable universities in the UK, revealed that it was threatened with the removal of its ‘Highly Trusted Sponsor’ status. It is widely rumoured that such a move could bankrupt the university, which already plans to outsource almost all its services.

With City Academies already in the pipeline, the ongoing privatisation of higher education, the raising of tuition fees, and the cuts to out-of-school youth services, military academies will soak up the (‘morally unwell’) human fallout from privatisation’s failures. At worst, ex-military personnel could be used to actively replace unionised teaching staff and undercut salaries.

From the Classroom to Kabul

None of this would be possible without the endorsement of the Military top brass, and a spattering of MoD names duly adorns the acknowledgements section of the ResPublica report. From a military perspective there are good reasons to endorse such a set of policies. With a global population now predominantly based in cities, the future of warfare is decidedly urban. Indeed, it’s easy to forget that the 2011 UK rioters, who held the police at bay for almost a week last year, were not well-equipped guerilla fighters, but largely young people with little more than social connections, bicycles, mobile phones, and numbers on their side. The “playing fields of Eton” have long since been supplanted by the streets of Tottenham, and the MoD knows it.

Gaining access to, and knowledge about, these sorts of networks and communities can make or break the relationship of the military to civilians in a conquered city; little wonder General Lord Dannat spoke of military involvement in UK civil society as part of a ‘Battle for Hearts and Minds’.

The intersection of social media, communications technology, bodies and space is at the core of contemporary security strategy. Knowledge acquired in the UK classroom could find its way on to the streets of Kabul and  other cities occupied by Britain and its allies, in a reverse of the ‘boomerang effect’ which sees military technology field-tested in war zones being deployed on British streets.

From the perspective of the two parties and the military, Military Academies make a lot of sense. But for those of us more critical of such a project, what can be done? After all, surely Twigg’s comments have rendered an increase in military involvement of some kind a cross-party fait accompli?

Some people I have spoken to on this topic have argued that we should question the aptitude of forces and ex-forces staff to teach. Others have made the case for stressing the violence of the armed forces overseas. To me, however, these seem to be difficult positions to resist from, as they require us to attack this policy by proxy or through complex debates about military psychology- indeed they are already being set up as straw men by the likes of David Lammy.

In my view, it’s important to assert that ex-forces personnel do have a role to play in society, possibly even in the education of young people, but as civilians with their own independent sense of moral agency and an awareness of their previous role. It is the discourses, assumptions and interests that lie behind militarised schools that make them truly dangerous.

We should also remember that there is a large group of people who could prove quite significant in terms of implementing Military Academies: pupils, parents, and teachers. None of these groups have seen any significant consultation, and a recurring theme of arguments in favour of militarising education is the sidelining of presently existing education researchers and workers.

A robust response from teachers, and teaching unions like the NUT, as well as concerted effort by pupils and parents to demand a say in whether such a scheme should be implemented and how, could scupper it, and the ultimate test is whether pupils attend at all. Indeed, the rejection of similar projects has already started to happen at some of the ‘free schools’ the coalition established, which have failed to get sufficient student numbers.

Like many of those pushing these measures, I’m no expert on educational practice or the psychological effects of military life. But I can say that this highlights the urgent need for greater public discussion and awareness of what critical education in concepts of ethics, inequality and political participation- one that is not reduced to a set of received maxims- might actually look like.

Behind the façade of  shoddy research and jingoist rhetoric pushing Military Schools forward, lies a much more serious attempt to manage social forces that are threatening the economic system and governmental order that produced them. It is unlikely, given the lack of adequate data and broader economic context, that Military Academies will offer young people in deprived areas a way out of their situation. However the policy does aim to bring those young people into a new form of surveillance and discipline in schools that has a focus on producing individuals who conform to the demands of neoliberal economics.

The state has always had a role in producing markets; and looking back to the poor laws of the late 16th century, and the origins of the workhouse, one can see a similar logic in operation in the control and monitoring of the old ‘dangerous classes’. Are we at the same kind of crossroads in the history of social order?

Hopefully, through exposing and exploring this logic, and more crucially, through the resistance of those this order is being imposed upon, this wont be the case, and a brighter future than the Military Academy awaits.

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Alex Baker is a writer and activist based in the UK and a member of Ceasefire's editorial board.

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Disenfranchised
Jan 28, 2014 14:00

What is going on in this school is more than a bit of jingoistic social manipulation!

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